China’s experts describe “the root cause” of the proliferation problem as that “the United States and other nuclear powers [read Russia] implement…hegemonic policies” including employing military force against weaker non-nuclear states, which leads some of them to seek nuclear weapons. Fan Jishe, deputy director of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation Studies, has applauded the nuclear security summits for making considerable progress, but cautioned that Russia and the United States, the two countries with thelargest nuclear warheads and fissile materials stockpiles, “should assume a greater share of the responsibility for strengthening global nuclear security” by making further reductions in their nuclear arsenals, decreasing the role of nuclear weapons in their security policies, and accelerating their fissile materials repatriation programs.
U.S.-Russian arms control efforts have stalemated most obviously over the issue of missile defense, but Russian concerns about China’s growing nuclear potential are also playing a part. Putin and other Russian policy makers insist that future nuclear arms reductions occur on a multilateral basis, though without specifying whether this process must involve formal negotiations with all countries having nuclear weapons or can proceed through a smaller group of participants in which reductions can occur through unilateral action. The United States and Russia still possess around ten times as many deployed strategic nuclear warheads as China – whose totals approximate those of Britain or France, the other nuclear weapons states officially recognized by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But U.S. and Russian apprehensions persist about reducing their nuclear forces much further without greater evidence that China will join the nuclear disarmament process. Unlike the United States and Russia, China has yet to adopt legally binding limits on its nuclear weapons or strategic nuclear delivery vehicles. And, although Beijing doesn’t appear to be designing new types of nuclear weapons, China is improving the means it uses to carry them to their intended targets.
Securing a more binding commitment from the Chinese government than simple declarations of intent to restrain the country’s nuclear forces is essential for reassuring Washington and Moscow that further reducing their nuclear arsenals won’t risk undermining global and regional stability. The United States as well as Russia will find it hard to reduce their strategic nuclear weapons further without some indication that China will constrain its own nuclear potential. Indeed, the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review explicitly cites U.S. and allied concerns about China’s “quantitative and qualitative modernization of its nuclear capabilities.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
U.S. officials have expressed interest in making one more round of bilateral reductions with Russia following the entry into force of the New START agreement in early 2011, but Russian government representatives have indicated they want to break with tradition and include constraints on other nuclear weapons states in the next strategic arms control treaty. Why? For a start, although never mentioned officially, Russian strategic experts have expressed concerns about China’s rising military strength to explain a reluctance to negotiate further deep cuts in their nuclear forces. Russia still has a more powerful military than China, but the disparity in population and economic growth rates is closing the gap.
Meanwhile, although Moscow’s opposition to U.S. missile defense plans are well-known, Chinese policy makers have expressed similar unease about expanding U.S. capabilities in this area, especially since Japan and the United States collaborate on several joint programs. Beijing’s fear is that Washington and Tokyo might at some point seek to extend a missile shield to cover Taiwan. China’s National Defense in 2008, for example, warns that “China maintains that the global missile defense program will be detrimental to strategic balance and stability, undermine international and regional security, and have a negative impact on the process of nuclear disarmament. China pays close attention to this issue.”
So, has concern about U.S. strategic ambitions prompted China and Russia to pursue concrete collaboration in this area? Not so far. One of the speakers at the Missile Defense Conference in Moscow organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense this month lamented how, despite calculations showing how China’s nuclear arsenal would more easily be neutralized by emerging U.S. missile defense systems than Russia’s larger fleet of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, Chinese officials haven’t objected as vigorously as Russian representatives. Chinese and Russian representatives have thus far largely limited their ballistic missile defense efforts to issuing joint declarations. Clever U.S. diplomacy should aim to keep it that way.